Support for maternal depression should include teaching fathers to parent sensitively (USA)

support father when mother depressed

A study has found that continuous maternal depression in the first six years of a child’s life predicts family disharmony—but not if the father parents sensitively.

On the basis of this finding, the researchers recommend “early interventions to partners of depressed mothers that empower fathers, address their unique importance to child and family, and teach fathers how to parent sensitively at different ages.” The researchers suggest such things as videos showing sensitive fathering in action.

Starting with a large sample of 1,983 women recruited just after the birth of a baby, the study selected one group of women with high depression scores at six months and one group with low depression scores. From this group, some were surveyed again at nine months, and some of those mothers were visited. Finally, home visits were organised five years and three months later. By this stage, 156 families were participating.

All the families were educated and financially secure, both parents were in good physical health, the parents were living together, the fathers were not clinically depressed and neither parent suffered from acute anxiety.

During the first year and at six years, the mother’s mental health was measured. At six years, during a four-hour home visit when both parents were at home, researchers measured mother-child and father-child interactions, as well as how all three functioned together. The researchers looked at:

  • Parental sensitivity – acknowledging, gaze, vocalisation, support, affectionate touch, etc.
  • Parental intrusiveness – forcing, criticism, overriding parenting, etc.
  • Child social engagement – attention, affection, vocalisation, creative play, etc.
  • Group interaction – cooperation/competition, avoidance/involvement, autonomy/intrusiveness, mutual gaze, symbolic play, etc.
  • Family cohesion – warmth/involvement/fluidity/affectionate versus constraint/interruption/disharmony/parents’ persistent instruction.

Two main findings emerged.

First, when mothers were continuously depressed for six years, not only did their own parental sensitivity suffer, but so did the fathers’. This finding corresponds with earlier research showing mutual influences between mother-child and father-child relationships. It may be more difficult for fathers to parent while also dealing with a depressed partner. It may also be that fathers learn from mothers to a certain extent and so may be influenced by a depressed mother’s compromised parenting.

Second, chronic depression on the part of the mother was associated with family processes that were less harmonious and less collaborative and allowed for less autonomy – but only if the father also showed insensitive and more intrusive parenting. When fathers were sensitive parents, the mother’s depression did not predict low family harmony.

Arguing in favour of a family approach, rather than the usual focus on the mother-child relationship, the researchers say:

“Throughout human history and across cultural communities, family, which is the interface of familiarity and affiliation, has defined the most solid cultural institution that enhances survival, transmits values, facilitates adaptation, and supports children’s cognitive and social-emotional development through participation in multiple daily relationships with parents and siblings and observation of the relations between close others. Extant research has shown that a cohesive, warm, and harmonious family process, which is characterized by cooperation among members, individual autonomy, and low intrusiveness and rigidity, predicts a host of positive child outcomes, including social competence, lower externalizing and internalizing symptoms, reduced physiological stress, and positive emotional expression and emotion regulation.”

Vakrat A, Apter-Levy Y & Feldman R (2017), Family moderates the effects of maternal depression on the family process, Development and Psychopathology

Photo: Mark Panado. Creative Commons.